Tears welled up in Jamal Ray’s eyes as he told a crowded room how his family went hungry.
The Germantown resident, who lives with his wife and four sons, lost his job at a federal agency, where he worked for the past 23 years.
He had to fight to keep his home and make sure his family was fed, he said, but he was too proud to admit he needed help. Eventually, he gave in.
“Pride doesn’t pay the bills, and it doesn’t feed the boys, or keep the heat on,” he said.
On Friday morning, at a hunger symposium in Gaithersburg’s Activity Center at Bohrer Park, Ray said his tears came from happiness. When he found out about the Gaithersburg-based food bank Manna Food Center, he started receiving food and volunteering with them, helping to move food out to clients’ cars.
“Instead of pushing papers around, people were getting fed,” he said.
Now, as a Manna volunteer, Ray said the tides have turned for his family.
“It gets better,” he said. “It definitely gets better.”
The symposium was mainly organized by Manna and cosponsored by Maryland Hunger Solutions and the city of Gaithersburg.
Speakers from county-level, state-level and local organizations discussed the state of the hungry in Montgomery County.
Cathy Demeroto, director of Maryland Hunger Solutions, said that even in one of the wealthiest states in the nation, many people have inadequate access to food, and budgets are “stretched to the breaking point.”
Though the recession’s worst point seems to have passed, Demeroto said, participation in the food-stamp program — now known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — is continuing to grow. Reaching low-income senior citizens is also proving to be difficult, she said.
“It is unacceptable and morally reprehensible that so many of our neighbors are struggling with hunger,” she said.
Uma Ahluwalia heads the county’s Department of Health and Human Services. She anticipates that the overwhelmed social services system will have to deal with more cutbacks once the effects of the federal cuts known as the sequester set in. Beds in county shelters are full and case workers each handle thousands of cases, she said.
“We are having an impact. It’s clearly not enough,” she said.
In the county’s public schools, Food and Nutrition Services Director Marla Caplon said, eligible students are getting free or reduced-price meals, but they are trying to reach more students in need.
Manna, which serves needy people throughout the county, is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.
“There was no expectation that Manna would be around 30 years,” Delgado said. The organization was started as a temporary solution to food shortages, but demand has grown in the past few decades, she said. But with events like the symposium, Manna and other organizations can help each other out.
“Ending hunger is a collaborative effort,” she said, “and we know at Manna that we can’t do it by ourselves.”